The final episode of the final season of American Idol aired Thursday night, and the two finalists—La'Porsha Renae, a 22-year-old black woman from Mississippi, and Trent Harmon, a 25-year-old white farm boy also from Mississippi—were barely seen at all. While judge Jennifer Lopez and season-four winner Carrie Underwood performed five-minute sets, Renae and Harmon were only heard briefly, at the very tail end of the episode. Instead of a conventional finale, this was a celebration of an institution that has lasted 15 years in a television atmosphere where most reality shows last six, tops. Like many aspects of American Idol, the show does more for the people running it than the people performing on it.
At the end of the night, after two hours of commemorating seasons past, Ryan Seacrest opened the envelope and read Trent Harmon's name.
"The person that everyone thinks is gonna win never wins, and the person that everyone thinks is not gonna win, usually does so I wasn't stunned by it," Renae told Entertainment Tonight. La'Porsha's right: Many people, including Idol winners Kelly Clarkson and Ruben Studdard, were pulling for her.
Trent Harmon is definitely talented, and he performed well this season. But he also had another thing going for him: he’s a white man on a show that white men have dominated.
We gathered data for all 15 seasons of the late, (sometimes) great singing competition series and broke down the winners and top-three finalists by race and gender. Let's start with the finalists:
There's surprising gender parity among Idol finalists. This is something the overall music industry does very poorly, with women making up only 1/3 of Top 40 performers. In that context, the balance achieved on Idol is pretty impressive. But things go downhill from here.
Needless to say, it is less than ideal that people of color make up only 37.7% of American Idol finalists. When we break down finalists by both race and gender, the nature of this gap gets clearer.
The group that America votes into the top three most often is white men, and the group they most often exclude is men of color. White men alone comprise 42% of American Idol finalists, while men of color comprise only 8%. What about Idol winners?
Despite accounting for just under 50% of the top-three contestants, women have won only six of the 15 seasons of American Idol (40%). That's not terrible. But let's look at how people of color perform in the final vote.
Only four people of color have won American Idol: Ruben Studdard (season two), Fantasia Barrino (season three), Jordin Sparks (season six), and Candice Glover (season 12). That means 75% of American Idol winners were white people.
When we break down the winners by race and gender, the disparity becomes even more drastic.
This is a pretty incredible graph when you think about the biggest names American Idol ever produced: Carrie Underwood, Kelly Clarkson, Jordin Sparks, Ruben Studdard—all, well, not white men. And yet, white men have won this competition in nine of 15 seasons: That's 60% of the time.
What's really interesting about this data, though, is how much the race and gender of finalists and winners changed as the American Idol viewership dropped off. It took five seasons for the first white dude (Taylor Hicks) to win: The show started off much more diverse than it finished.
In the first seven seasons of American Idol—roughly the first half of the show's run—only six white men made it to the final three at all (Clay Aiken, Bo Bice, Taylor Hicks, Elliot Yamin, Blake Lewis, and David Cook). White men only made up 28% of finalists for the first half of this series, and yet, they somehow ended up with 60% of the wins overall. How did that happen?
In the last eight seasons of American Idol, 14 of the 24 final-three contestants were men, and every single season but one (season 12) was won by a white man.
There's been a lot of discussion about why American Idol's ratings dwindled, and why the show had to end. But one thing is obvious. When the Idol viewership fell away, the voters who remained had a very definite bias for what a winner looks like.
This year, everything worked out all right for La'Porsha. She and Harmon were both given cars, and she signed a deal with Big Machine Records and 19 Entertainment. But it shouldn't have been a surprise, really, when Trent became the final winner of American Idol. The pendulum had been swinging in his favor for the last eight seasons.
Kelsey McKinney is a culture staff writer for Fusion.